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The Globe and Mail

Ottawa a ‘national embarrassment’ on infrastructure funding, Ontario minister says

Ontario Transportation Minister Glen Murray speaks in Toronto in July, 2013.

MICHELLE SIU/The Globe and Mail

Canada's federal government is a "national embarrassment" for not doing its fair share to build infrastructure, Ontario Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Glen Murray says.

The country requires $1.3-billion worth of spending on everything from roads to bridges to transit lines, Mr. Murray said Tuesday, and Ottawa's decade-long, $70-billion commitment to infrastructure is not enough.

"This is a national crisis and the government of Canada is a national embarrassment," he said at the Ontario legislature. "This accelerates as a burden to our children."

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Federal Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel fired back, pointing out that the government's New Building Canada Fund is unprecedentedly large. He also slammed Ontario for failing to balance its budget as quickly as Ottawa, which is predicting balance next year.

"We have recently announced the longest and the largest infrastructure plan in Canada's history, from which Ontario stands to benefit. The reality is that our Conservative government has tripled federal infrastructure funding in Ontario since 2006," he said in a statement. "While we have increased federal transfers to Ontario by a whopping 76 per cent, we are still on track to balance our budget. We urge Ontario to achieve the same."

Mr. Lebel also argued that infrastructure is a provincial responsibility, so it should be expected that Ottawa will spend less on it than the provinces.

"It is mere logic that Ontario would spend a great[er] percentage of its funds toward what clearly is a provincial responsibility than the federal government," he said.

But Mr. Murray said this is still not enough. He said Ontario's allotment from Building Canada this year "fills a handful of potholes, it doesn't do very much."

Mr. Murray said Ontario is spending about 2 per cent of its GDP, or $14-billion annually, on infrastructure, and called on the federal government to spend the same percentage.

Part of the divide between Queen's Park and Ottawa is the process for building infrastructure. The federal government favours a system in which provinces and cities plan for infrastructure and then apply for funding on a project-by-project basis. Ontario, however, wants the federal government to agree to a long-term building plan that would more clearly spell out what will be funded and when.

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Barry Steinberg, CEO of the Consulting Engineers of Ontario, who appeared with Mr. Murray, called on the federal government to get involved in transit planning. The federal government has committed money to transit projects in Toronto and elsewhere, but all planning is handled by provincial transit agency Metrolinx and various local transit authorities.

"Investment in infrastructure is a powerful catalyst to economic activity and growth. It's a powerful catalyst to jobs," he said. "Toronto is the largest city in the world that does not have any federal commitment to transit planning. That needs to change."

The Ontario Liberals are leaning heavily on infrastructure as part of their policy agenda. The government is spending $35-billion over the next three years, and is counting on that money to stimulate the sluggish economy.

The province may also face an election this spring, during which the Grits will undoubtedly campaign on transit and other infrastructure spending.

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